Along the Danube |

Along the Danube

BOB BERWYNsummit daily news
Summit Daily/Bob Berwyn

Even when it touches deep scars, traveling down the path of family history is a rewarding journey. So when my dad suggested a couple of years ago that we visit a Cold War memorial site near his hometown in Slovakia, Dylan and I jumped at the chance to join him and explore the banks of the Danube around Bratislava, just a few miles downstream of Vienna.My son takes a break from capturing frogs in a murky pond while my dad looks at the monument near the rivers edge and translates the inscription. The concrete slab is pock-marked with replicated bullet holes. An iron grate is bent up at one corner, symbolizing escape from tyranny. The marker was dedicated here on the former Cold War frontier to memorialize thousands of people who were killed trying to flee Eastern Europe between 1945 and 1989, along with countless others who never got the chance, sentenced to jail or forced labor without fair trials for questioning tyrannical Communist doctrine. My dad is one of the lucky ones. More than 50 years ago, just a few miles from the monument, he watches Czech soldiers from his home and times border patrols along the riverside road. One evening, he sneaks down to the water, jumps in and swims to freedom. He leaves behind family and friends, hopes and dreams. As a defector, he doesnt cant go back to visit for 40 years, not even as a tourist. Today, however, we are free to roam, so we hike up to the partly restored ruins of Devin Castle, overlooking the scene. Fortified settlements at the site date to the 9th century, and human habitation has been documented back to the Stone Age. Sitting at the confluence of the Danube and Morava rivers, the 600-foot-high point strategically controlled important trade routes. The Cold War isnt first time this territory was disputed. The great clash between the Ottoman the Austro-Hungarian empires had its western boundary here, and centuries later, Napoleons army demolished the stronghold on a sweep through the area after besieging Bratislava.They clipped my wingsFlash back to the late 1940s. The Iron Curtain casts a deep shadow across Central Europe. The continent is starkly divided after WWII, the western half flowering with promise, the east mired deeply in a dead-end totalitarian rut. Mass displacement is common. Almost 3 million ethnic Germans are expelled from Czechoslovakia. Moscow-leaning socialist parties make gains at the polls across Eastern Europe.In 1947, Soviet leader Josef Stalin calls the Czech prime minister to Moscow. A short time later, the 12 noncommunist ministers in the government hand in their resignations, while the Communist-controlled interior ministry deploys troops, police, and organizes a worker militia. The prime minister accepts the resignations and installs a new cabinet, hand-picked by the Communist party freedom lost.They clipped my wings. They were never going to let me fly, my dad says as we walk down a narrow path to the river, just a few miles from the marker. Swatting away mosquitoes, we look for the exact spot where he took the plunge so many years ago. The river has shifted, just like the political tides, so its hard to tell for sure. As we scour the shoreline for landmarks, he tells us about a boyhood lived as fierce battles raged in the region.After the war, my dad and his friends play a dangerous game of dodging Russian troops looking to conscript teenagers for work projects. He follows his dream of flying and gains admission to the Czech Air Force Academy. Not one to follow dogma, he freely talks politics with his friends. At least one of them disappears suddenly, shipped off to work in an under ground uranium mine. Dad realizes that hes already been branded as politically unreliable and that the Air Force will never let him fly, suspecting that he might defect with the plane. He downplays the story of his escape, joking about his arrival at a refugee camp near Vienna with nothing but his brains and the clothes on his back. As we zoom comfortably along the highway, a guard casually waves us through that very same border, and we think about this powerful tale of the human spirit and the desire to be free. If the trek to the memorial is a grim reminder of a not-so-distant past, then our visit with family in the Slovak capital, Bratislava, is hopeful sign for the future. When the Iron Curtain fell in 1989, dad started traveling back to his native country, reconnecting with family and friends. When the three of us arrive at our relatives house, were greeted with familial warmth: A feast of cold cuts, fresh rolls and bread, a big take-home bag of red and pink backyard cherries and a nonstop supply of good Slovak beer. ‘You can bomb the world to pieces’A new generation is growing up under the banner of democracy, and if it learns from the past, it wont take freedom lightly. Im optimistic that, in some small way, the stories rub off on Dylan, a child of privilege in 21st Century America. We all need to learn from the past, and our visit to Linz, my moms hometown, is part of the process. The city straddles the Danube, halfway between Vienna and Salzburg. Here too, the river marked the great ideological divide of the late 20th Century. On one side was the Russian zone, on the other, the American sector. It was an Austrian version of Berlins Checkpoint Charlie, where commuting to work and school involved a daily encounter with armed soldiers.In many ways, moms childhood mirrors my dads. Her stories come to life as we wander cobblestone alleys where she played as a child, and hike up to the summit of a local hill were she worked in an outdoor restaurant. She tells Dylan how her older brother, Karl, was forcibly drafted as a teen when Nazi soldiers went door to door, looking for cannon fodder any male old enough to carry a gun on the Russian Front. She never saw him again. Bombers sought to destroy a strategic bridge and industrial facilities within miles of her home. Once, when the air-raid sirens howled while she was sick, her family and neighbors carried her, mattress and all, to the musty and dark basement shelter. Later, we pull up a Michael Franti playlist on the iPod: You can bomb the world to pieces, but you cant bomb it into peace.Does it all sink in? Dylan listens to the stories closely and asks me serious questions. I try to keep it simple, telling him to protect and cherish treasures like peace and prosperity, to never take them for granted. That war, with all its horrible suffering, should always be a last resort. Mountain cultureThese days, the biggest challenge on a leisurely stroll across the same bridge is dodging trolley cars and deciding what flavor of ice cream to choose from one of the many sidewalk vendors. Our trip isnt all heavy-going history, so Dylan and I head for Mondsee, a lake in the Salzkammergut region, near Salzburg. The sparkling clear water is cool relief from the 90-degree highs during an early summer heat wave, and we frolic the low-key lakeside water park, with big slides, floating platforms perfect for squirt gun battles, and best of all mellow lifeguards who let the kids (and grownups) have their fun. Glaciers scooped out the chain of fjord-like lakes in the alpine foothills. The tiny villages squeezed between the water and the steep rock cliffs are stacked with creamy stucco buildings, trimmed with dark pine and bright red geraniums along every balcony and window ledge.Our favorite is Hallstatt, built on a steep alluvial outwash on the shore of Hallstaetter See (lake). The town has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1997, recognized for its cultural history and landscape. In a rich trove of Celtic artifacts dating back to 5,000 B.C., archaeologists unearthed one of the earliest known Iron Age blacksmith sites, a significant step for mankind. The nearby salt mines were also worked by ancient people. Hallstatt still exports salt through a 40 kilometer pipeline, first built in 1595 from 13,000 hollowed-out logs. Our visit is timed for Corpus Christi Day to watch a traditional parade of decorated boats. The armada is part of a floating Catholic Mass dating back to the days when the villages around the lake were only accessible by foot or boat. The first road into the rugged valley was carved 1890, relatively late for this part of the world. We rent a rowboat and join in the procession, at one point nearly falling into the water when a local lad fires a ceremonial blunderbuss a few feet away, signaling the start of Mass. We paddle over to the gunboat and learn that the town has a civic group whose sole duty it is to take care of the blaster and make sure its ready to go when needed. We tag along within hailing distance of an elaborate floating altar, floating in a pocket of devout Catholicism in the heart of a Europe that is homogenizing culturally at a break-neck pace.Our day in Hallstatt ends as it should, with creamy pastries and strong coffee at a lake-front caf, watching as swans sail the darkening waters. Picking the last of the sweet crumbs from our plate, we unfold the map, planning the route to our next stop. We have signed up for a ranger-led hike in the rugged Kalkalpen National Park, where together with one of the Austrias leading botanists, well search for orchids in high pasture and grasslands.Check back in the June 1 Summit Daily travel section to read about an Austrian orchid quest, and a waterfall hike in a neighboring national park.Bob Berwyn can be reached at (970) 331-5996, or at

Check out the lyrics to Michael Frantis Bomb the World at CASTLE, within easy day-tripping distance from Vienna and Bratislava, is an important Slovak cultural touchstone. The fortress is featured on Slovak currency, and the site is considered by some to be the western gateway to Hungarian territory, and at the same time, a symbol of early Slovak nationalism. The memorial to fallen and captured refugees is just a short distance below Devin Castle outside Bratislava. Travel info: and was founded as a Roman outpost along several important early trans-European trade routes. It is Austrias third-largest city (pop. 190,000) and home to major industries, including steel works. Travel info:, HALLSTATT and SALZKAMMERGUT are all part of the same charming mountain lakes region between Salzburg and Linz. Mondsee offers great family recreation, including sandy swimming beaches and boating. Hallstatts status as a world heritage site keeps it humming with tourists, and trying to find a place to park during summer vacation is a bit like trying to park in Breckenridge on Presidents Day weekend. Arrive early and park in one of the remote lots, then use the lakeside trail to hike into town.World heritage site info: Christi boat procession: is home to an important research station, focusing on ecological studies of inland waters. Some research shows that a changing climate and warmer mountain temps could lead to the decline of the lakes ecosytems. Check out the latest science at more travel storiesCoral, caves and relics in Belize: and son, ja-ja-jammin’ in Jamaica: Cup fever strikes Europe:

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